Combining Clownery and Burlesque: How funny should Clown Burlesque be?

Here is another question about clown burlesque from Angel:

I never knew about clown burlesque, but watching your numbers interested me in it. I guess my question is how do you combine the two, clownery and burlesque- but still be funny yet sexy and still teasing at the same time. Cause Im thinking that if you did too much of one, the idea wouldn’t really come across.

Thanks for taking the time to answer some of my questions I appreciate it so much.

Angel B.
Wethersfield, CT

Great question! If you’re gonna be a clown, you have to really go for it!  I read an article about Tina Fey in a magazine recently where she talked about some advice she got from Steve Martin. He said that if you are at all funny, you have to kill every time. So don’t hold back! Take risks! There is nothing entertaining about a clown without a punchline!

Clown humor is often self-effacing, so you need to be able to be silly without feeling embarrassed. The clown clothes and makeup are a great way to seperate your clown character from your normal self, freeing you from your inhibitions. As a clown, you can really do anything and get away with it. People will just look at you and go, “Of course. She’s a clown.” You can use this as a way to explore subjects and expression that may be too awkward or embarrassing when not in clown face and costume.

When encorporating comedy into your act, the original definition of burlesque comes into play.

bur·lesque (bər-lěsk’)

  • A literary or dramatic work that ridicules a subject either by presenting a solemn subject in an undignified style or an inconsequential subject in a dignified style. See Synonyms at caricature.
  • A ludicrous or mocking imitation; a travesty: The antics of the defense attorneys turned the trial into a burlesque of justice.
  • A variety show characterized by broad ribald comedy, dancing, and striptease.
  • v.   bur·lesqued, bur·lesqu·ing, bur·lesques

    v.   tr.
    To imitate mockingly or humorously: “always bringing junk . . . home, as if he were burlesquing his role as provider” (John Updike).
    v.   intr.
    To use the methods or techniques of burlesque.

    [From French, comical, from Italian burlesco, from burla, joke, probably from Spanish, from Vulgar Latin *burrula, diminutive of Late Latin burrae, nonsense, from burra, wool.]
    bur·lesque’ adj., bur·lesque’ly adv., bur·lesqu’er n.

    The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition
    Copyright © 2009 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
    Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

    It’s important to be concious of that fact that in Clown Burlesque you are presenting the clown archetype at the same time as the showgirl archetype. For a really effective performance, I always consider my clown showgirl character to be a clown first, showgirl second. A clown uses exaggeration and humor to present and comment on ideas and experiences that are universal. As a clown showgirl, you would use exaggeration and irony to explore ideas or experiences relative to the showgirl character. I think of it as “burlesquing the striptease.”

    For example, you could play up the showgirl’s natural interest in appearing sexy in at least a couple of different ways:

    1. Come out dressed as a totally ridiculous-looking clown, but never break character as a showgirl. Keep all the movements and face expressions sexy and “classic showgirl” even while removing crazy clown garb and props. For example, you could play up the classic clown gag of the never-ending scarf from the pocket by removing a glove that just keeps getting longer and longer, removing boas tied together from oversized pants, etc. You could also remove whoopie cushions, balloon animals, etc. from hiding places within your costuming, all the while keeping a “straight face” and maintaining your showgirl presentation.
    2. Play a clown character that is overly concerned with her appearance. Use exaggerated, clowny face expressions to express concern and make it obvious that the clown character is aware that she is not really cutting it as a “classic showgirl.” Perhaps have her pull out a mirror to check her face and hair, maybe fussing with a hat that doesn’t stay in place or something along those lines. You would want to use exaggeration and repetition on the same theme to make it clear to the audience exactly what you are playing on and that you are doing it intentionally!

    These are just two examples of different ways to play on one aspect of the showgirl archetype, which I pulled from your question. There are so many other facets and ideas that you can play on, so have fun and get creative.

    I think playing on the showgirl archetype is a natural starting point for clown burlesque, but of course you can explore any themes that appeal to you. You can always play on experiences that are universal to your audience, women, or humanity in general, not just to the showgirl archetype. You could also choose to be a character clown, layering another archetype or stereotype on top of the clown/showgirl combination, which creates whole new ideas to explore. For example, you could be a clown/police officer/showgirl or a clown/housewife/showgirl. The options are limitless!

    The main thing to remember when putting together your number is to have fun! Pick an idea that makes you giggle. Entertain yourself! The more fun you have while creating and performing the act, the more fun the audience will have watching you. Your enthusiasm is what will enthrall your audience, so have fun, explore, and play!



    Filed under Articles: Ask the Bombshell, Burlesque

    8 responses to “Combining Clownery and Burlesque: How funny should Clown Burlesque be?

    1. k8alexandra

      Wow, this is so interesting… I have been having the same conversation with myself about Clown and Burlesque! I wrote a blog post yesterday about it, and got a very interesting comment from a Clown in Australia who talks. I had also mentioned in my post Bombshell Betty (an I’ve now linked to this blog) as I too had checked out some of your videos and it seems you have got the artform down.
      I have been playing with the clown sending the showgirl, it’s kind of dirty, full of mishaps and silliness with all sorts of weird objects coming out of my clothes as they come off. I’m still not sure how much of me I will reveal. How can I reveal more about the clown while revealing myself and not ‘distracting’ the audience with kapow- woman’s breasts?
      It’s a fun and fascinating line to be playing with and I am so glad to have found this conversation here.. happening at the same time 🙂

    2. I am a burlesque clown and for me, it’s not so much about being a showgirl (at all, actually.) The burlesque quality comes from my subject matter, which is sexuality and gender. Burlesque is not only about showgirls. It’s about having a show that is entirely blue, from the comics to the bands to the dancers. Everyone gets to be a little inappropriate. If you’d like to bring the idea of clown into your burlesque act, that’s fine. But if you want to call yourself a clown, please do some studying. Clown is a very ancient art form taking on several different roles in a variety of cultures through the ages. Being a clown is hard work. Please do not just slap on a silly outfit and some greasepaint, try to look cute and call yourself a clown. Know a bit about the lineage and tradition you are drawing from. If you’d like to learn more about clown and physical theatre, check out the Dell Arte International School of Physical Theatre, Iron Pig in Philadelphia, or contact Dan Griffiths through for some amazing clown training in the Bay Area. I do believe that clown and showgirl can go together, but you’ve got to lose any idea of being a pin-up in order to make it work. Just my two cents.

      • Thank you for your input, poembitch! I agree that studying is very important, and I know that we have a very rich circus and clowning scene here in the Bay Area with many fabulous instructors and resources. Thank you for posting links and recommendations.

        The focus of this post is “clown burlesque,” and while it has been argued that burlesque is not about stripping/showgirls and is all about comedy, I am not getting into that topic here. For the purpose of this post, I am discussing “clown burlesque” from a “comedic stripping showgirl” perspective. I don’t claim that this post explores clowning OR burlesque OR clown-burlesque exhaustively; it’s really just intended to get people thinking about the concept.

        I don’t know if this statement is directed at me, or if you mean it more as general advice: “Please do not just slap on a silly outfit and some greasepaint, try to look cute and call yourself a clown.” If it’s meant as general advice, I couldn’t agree more! If it is directed at me personally… have you ever seen me perform???

    3. I have never seen you perform, and the comment was meant in no way as a personal slight. It comes from seeing lots of bad clown in the Bay area. I’ve heard you’re quite the firecracker onstage!

    4. Woo! A firecracker? I’ll take it! Thank you. 🙂

      I am glad that the comment was not directed at me. Maybe you’ll come to one of my shows sometime? My students are quite creative and fabulous, too. I am always so proud of them!

      What do you mean when you say, “bad” clowning? When I hear someone say they’ve seen “bad” performances (whether burlesque or clowning or whatever) a few questions always pop into my mind. Did they see someone who is just new to performing? It’s very easy to get on stage these days, and it’s not easy to start out as a professional performer right out of the gate. This is one of the reasons I produce so many student shows. The audience knows that the performers are brand new, they’re very supportive and don’t judge them as they would judge a performer who was supposed to be a professional, and everyone wins!

      Another question I think is: Perhaps the person doesn’t like the performance style or the sub-genre of the performance? I have had a few people who only like super-glam, traditional, Dita-esque burlesque tell me that they hate my performances. But I’m not trying to be Dita. I have a different story to tell, and my performances fall into a different sub-genre of burlesque.

      So what makes a performance “bad” as opposed to “amateur” or “not my style”?

    5. An all around incredibly written blog post!

    6. This surely makes perfect sense to anyone.

    7. I am slowly starting to build my burlesque routine… I have a history of stand up comedy, and gosh! Am I having trouble mixing those worlds. It’s amazing that one person can have so many facets they want to expose. Literally and figuratively. Thanks for the tips:)

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